That Simona de Silvestro was third quickest on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit through two rounds of practice for the ninth Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was a bit of a surprise – a pleasant one to the first-year KV Racing Technology driver.

It also was  a welcome result for the Swiss driver after a frustrating 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season with an underperforming engine that accompanied the new Dallara chassis.

De Silvestro, driving the No. 78 Nuclear Clean Energy car with Chevrolet power, had a best lap of 1 minute, 1.6895 seconds in the 45-minute afternoon session on an overcast and cool (for late March in Florida) day.

“It’s a big difference. Last year we came in here and we knew it was going to be a struggle, and this year we come after a really good Barber test and it showed right away,” said de Silvestro, whose career high of fourth came at St. Pete in 2011 (one spot behind new teammate Tony Kanaan).

“Even this morning I thought we were pretty quick even if we still have a little bit of work to do on the car. It’s definitely a relief to know we can be fast and we can be right up there with the other guys.”

The other guys included Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car and reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 1 DHL car. Power, who has earned the pole at St. Petersburg the past three years, topped the time chart with a best lap of 1 minute, 1.4467 seconds, while Hunter-Reay checked in second at 1:01.6252.

In all, 18 of the 25 drivers were within 1 second of Power. His best lap was only seven-hundredths of a second off his pole-winning speed of 1:01.3727 last March.

“I think we’ll get 59s (seconds for a lap), especially with the red (alternate) tires,” Power said of the three rounds of qualifications (2 p.m. ET March 23) to determine the Verizon P1 Award. “Just the year of development (has made the difference). The engine manufacturers got a bit more power and just through the development (drivers) get a little more downforce and a lot of grip.”

A tweak to the IZOD IndyCar Series rules this year state that tire usage during qualifying is limited only by an entrant’s allocation. Six sets of primary Firestone Firehawks and three sets of alternate tires are available for the race weekend, and one set of new (sticker) primary tires and one set of alternate tires must be used in the race.

Firestone has provided a primary tire for St. Petersburg that has a slightly different construction from 2012, while the alternate tire features a higher grip, softer tread compound than a year ago in response to series and driver requests to increase the performance gap between the specs.

Oriol Servia, driving the No. 22 Mecum Auctions car for Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, and Takuma Sato, driving the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. car for A.J. Foyt Racing, also were in the top five. Helio Castroneves, the three-time and defending car winner, was sixth in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske car.

“It was a very productive day for us,” said Sato, competing in his first race for the Foyt team after a year with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “The first session the ABC Supply car was a little bit outside of the balance that we wanted but we made a good improvement over the lunch break and the car felt much better in the afternoon. We tested a couple things and got some good information so hopefully tomorrow we can make another step forward.”